Miss Woodhouse's Musings

…about life, the universe, and everything. Don't panic!

Rolling Down A Beach With A Guide To the Galaxy

on 3 February 2010

In my Victorian literature class last week, we discussed the end of “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold.

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast, the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,

Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

In the last stanza, the speaker describes the condition of the world to the woman with him, “the world, which seems / To lie before us like a land of dreams.” The speaker describes a scene of hopelessness and despair, a world where nothing is real, nothing matters, a world that has become a battleground. For the speaker, this is the end of the world, the end of all his hopes of finding a reality. Faith is withdrawing from the world, and all is a dream.

We discussed in class how this seems to be Arnold’s way of working through the changes in society at the time. Darwin’s theories of evolution and the descent of man were talking hold of the world, and Christianity was slowly beginning to disappear from the forefront of life.

Fifty years later the same subject would jump the pond and show up in the poetry of the American writer/poet Stephen Crane. In his poem “Should the Wide World Roll Away”, Crane addresses the idea of the world disappearing to leave only darkness and terror.

Should the wide world roll away,
Leaving dark terror, limitless night
Nor God, nor man, nor place to stand
Would be to me essential
If thou and thy white arms were there
And the fall to doom a long way.

Like Arnold, all Crane thinks that he needs is the love of his woman- he does not need religion or a foundation if she will just hold him through it all. However, Arnold mourned the loss of faith, and hoped that it would come back. Crane acknowledges that faith is gone, but he thinks that God and faith are not essential to him.

In the 1970s, British author Douglas Adams addressed again the subject of the world dissolving away into nothingness. Where Arnold sees religion as ebbing and Crane sees it as unnecessary, Adams sees religion as a thing to mock. It does not matter what happens to the world, religion, God, or love. In fact, Adams goes so far as to talk about how God went wrong, and uses the idea of faith to “prove” that God does not exist and never has. For Adams, all you need is your towel, a portable guide to the galaxy, and improbable luck.

I really don’t have much point in posting this here, other than to show how quickly godlessness took hold in the world of literature. A scant 100 years after the first seeds of doubt about God and the Bible were planted in society, they became a weed that took over secular literature and eradicated all thought of faith.

Today we assume that “secular” means godless, religionless, faithless. This is the product of the changing times. Before 1850, it was not uncommon for secular literature to deal with religious and faith issues. As the issues seen above spread, though, the religious sphere and the secular sphere began to separate. Now, we have complete separation, but at the same time total confusion as to what matters in the world, why we are here, and what our purpose is. Unless we can unite our spheres again, the world is only going to become more and more confused, until it actually does disappear.

I’m not sure if we can do anything about this, but it is worth thinking about.


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